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 Lhotse 2001:  Gary Pfisterer and the International Expedition

Tom Moores in his own words: "On the 21st of May I summited Lhotse. Unfortunately on the way down I fell about 500 meters. Basically my crampons 'balled' up with snow and I went flying, all of a sudden I was tumbling down the Lhotse face. I was quite convinced I was going all the way to the bottom. Somehow I managed to put in an ice axe arrest and stop myself. "

"The spring season came round quicker than expected. Due to my 'relaxed' organizational skills, the week before departure was frantic. I was going with an American, Gary Pfisterer, who runs his trips on a non-commercial basis so there was quite a bit to sort out. My sponsors were superb, sorting out last minute orders to ensure they arrived on time. 

Arrived at Lukla, I was eager to get going on the nine-day trek up to Base Camp and on the ascent got to know some of the team better including some great guys. Unfortunately though I also got altitude sickness which was incredibly disheartening as we hadn't even reached Base Camp and the summit was still a good four kilometers above us! I took a rest day and then we steadily continued until we arrived at Base. 

Everest base camp is a varied collection of tents, which reflects the international composition of its inhabitants. Positioned on the Khumbu glacier at the foot of the infamous icefall, Base Camp serves as the home for around 400 climbers and support staff. There is a friendly atmosphere providing a great opportunity to meet people, with always someone dropping in for a chat. It was great to find some old Sherpa friends working for Alpine Mountaineering and Mike Richardson climbing with them. Alpine Mountaineering's camp gradually became my second home; they had a fantastic team and also huge amounts of food! 

            The following weeks were spent making acclimatizing trips up the mountain. As we weren't using Sherpas or supplemental oxygen, establishing camps lower on the mountain was very hard work. Everything we wanted up the hill we had to carry ourselves and I found I had to take longer and longer rests before returning up the mountain. My body was becoming exhausted and I wasn't able to replace the energy I had lost at Base Camp. Large expeditions with cooks at Camp 2 could stay for days, waiting for breaks in the weather, which was a huge advantage. The conditions in the Western Cwm were varied to say the least. When the sun was shining it was almost 20 degrees and uncomfortably hot but as soon as the sun went down or was obliterated by clouds it turned bitterly cold. 

The route to Lhotse's summit starts with the notorious Khumbu icefall. This is perhaps the most dangerous part of the mountain with the route weaving in and out of crevasses and under towering ice cliffs. Collapses were common and as a result the route needed constant repairing. Dependent on the load I generally took just under four hours to get up to Camp 1 which stands on top of the icefall. Above Camp1 the terrain flattens considerably and up to Camp 2 is a relatively pleasant walk up the Western Cwm. Climbers are rewarded with superb views of Everest, Lhotse and Nuptse. Eventually, after adequate acclimatisation, I was making trips from Base Camp up to Camp 2 in around seven hours with a fully loaded bag. The route up to Camp 3 continues relatively level along the floor of the Cwm until you reach the base of the Lhotse face. At this point the gradient increases considerably. It's about a 50-degree ice sheet that is fully protected with static lines. Before a summit bid is attempted it is advisable to spend a night at Camp 3 or at least deposit some equipment there. By the time it came round to mounting serious summit bids there were just four climbers remaining, Gary the leader, Tony, Jay and myself, for the others had left for home for various reasons.

After a period of bad weather Jay and I left for what I was certain would be my final summit attempt. We decided to tackle the summit although there were no static lines fixed in the summit couloir (gully). I was almost certain I was capable of climbing it but knew that coming down would present the main danger. With little information on the snow conditions in the couloir, we decided a careful risk assessment once there would be necessary. The weather looked promising at 6:00am as we left base camp for the last time and started heading up through the icefall. When the sun finally rose into the cloudless sky we saw an unmistakable ring around the sun - an atmospheric early warning of imminent bad weather. After a few more hours high cirrus clouds were streaming across the sky. My heart sank, I was convinced we'd got our timing wrong. But there was nothing we could do, I felt committed. If we returned, I wasn't sure I'd have the strength to be able to try again. So we pressed on in the hope that when we came to moving high on the mountain in a few days' time, the weather would have cleared. We spent that night in Camp 2 having had a reasonable day in the icefall. By late afternoon the clouds had closed in and the temperature dropped. I realized that my strength was fading: this was certainly going to be my last attempt. I felt some relief in a way; the decision made, in five days at the most I would be starting the long trip home. Despite this I was still determined to give everything to get to the top. I was well aware that an over emphasis on summiting is a fatal mistake, but it’s a case of having to find a happy medium. You cannot undertake a climb of this magnitude without a certain amount of determination and motivation. At Camp 2 we met up with a pair of Polish climbers, Anna and Darek, and their Sherpa, Passang. We agreed to climb together, though I did feel that as neither Jay nor I would be using oxygen, we would find it hard properly to contribute to the 'team'. Essentially we would just be following their trail and we knew it.

We decided to make the next a rest day, to allow the storm that had been brewing the previous afternoon to pass over. But the following day we moved up to Camp 3, both Jay and I suffering under huge packs. I was thankful I had been there before and knew the route. It meant that I could mentally tick off sections, knowing exactly how far I had left. Leaving Camp 2 far too late that morning it wasn’t until after 17:00 that we finally collapsed into the tent at Camp 3. As it hadn't been used for some time there was an ample covering of snow that had to be dug away. Thankfully the weather, though not perfect, was by no means bad, the storm clouds had passed and prospects didn't look too troublesome. Once in our tent, we found that the stove's pot was missing and without it our summit bid was effectively over. As the OTT guys weren't going to be around we borrowed a pot off them. Camp 3 at 7400m is where life starts becoming uncomfortable, everything requiring conscious effort. I was suffering from a headache so we spent some time melting water for fluids. We tried to drink as much as possible for theoretically you should be drinking around 6-7 liters a day but this is hard to maintain. My personal intake was more like 4-5 liters.          

We woke early and were about to start melting snow for the days water bottles when Jay announced that, while trying to chip the borrowed pot out of the ice, he had put the ice axe through it. The time to resolve this problem delayed our start for Camp 4. We decided another huge load would leave us no energy for summit day. Consequently we severely limited our equipment. We decided not to take sleeping bags but my down kit from Helly Hansen kept me warm. Our bags weren't that much lighter however, as we couldn't omit a stove, head torch, sleeping mat, clothes, gas and food. At least we were in tents abandoned by the recently departed Korean team so that was a major weight saving. 

Moving slowly up the fixed ropes, the previous days' exertions started to take their toll. This was new territory for me and very hard work, especially as I didn't know how far we had to go. The last few hundred meters were very slow going. I got in just before 18:00 and then had to start boiling water. The tent was small, designed for just two people, and half-buried by the snow. With Jay, Passang and myself in the tent including all our kit it was cosy to say the least. We tried to get some rest as the plan was to start at 4:00am and thus to be up at 2:00am. However the next morning we were confronted by freezing winds and the Poles had a problem with their oxygen kit. While awaiting a decision, I concluded that my feet were getting too cold and frostbite would soon become a concern, and so decided that I couldn't climb, resigning myself to failure. But soon after the Poles also gave up. However, their oxygen problems solved, they decided to wait another day and see if the weather improved. I considered carefully whether to remain at Camp 4 for that would mean another day and night at 8,000m and a continued drain on my physical reserves. While Jay was not feeling well and decided to descend, I decided to stay and see how I felt. We passed the day boiling water and trying to get some rest. Passang and I wanted to leave at 4:00am but Anna wanted to wait until later. As Passang worked for her and I was relying on following their trail, we didn't have much of a choice. So at 5:30 we left Camp 4 for the summit still over 500 vertical meters above us. 

I managed to stay with them until about halfway up the summit couloir. Although quite deep the snow was relatively stable and didn't pose a huge avalanche threat; and as the incline wasn't that steep I was confident that I could climb it without any problems. But I knew that the descent would be the hardest part, especially without any fixed rope. It was clear to me that it wasn't technically challenging but any mistake, even a tiny one, would probably prove fatal. I weighed up the risks and decided to continue. 

The climb to the summit was the hardest physical test of my life without any doubt at all. There were so many times when I sat collapsed on the snow and just thought "What the hell are you doing here?" It would have been so easy to turn and go back down. Progress was painfully slow, just three small steps would cause me to hyperventilate. Then I'd have to rest for two minutes before I could take another three steps. The last 100 meters were agonizing, the pain all over my body especially in my calf muscles and thighs, was almost unbearable. My lungs felt as if they were ready to explode. But at the same time I could feel every step bringing me closer to the summit. It was 13:45 and 8hours 15 minutes since I had climbed bleary eyed out of my tent now 500 meters below. The euphoria of getting to the top is more than tempered by the utter exhaustion. I had managed to summit just 20 minutes behind the Poles which more than pleased me. The view, unfortunately, was non-existent, and photos I took could quite easily have been of a rock in South Wales. Yet while I was there the view to Everest cleared for about 10 seconds revealing the summit just 300 meters higher before clouds obliterated it again. 

I spent only about two minutes on the peak before starting down again. Passang had carried a rope up and we used it to protect ourselves down the initial steep section. But I realized that if all four of us continued to use the rope all the way down it would take far too long, so Darek and I started descending independently. The descent offered no relief from the exertion. My thighs and knees required constant relief. 

After two and a half hours of descending I was nearing the bottom of the couloir, rather than feeling any sense of elation I was desperate to reach camp and rest. Then suddenly, with damp snow in the bottom of my crampons, my foot slid away from underneath me. I was shocked at just how fast I accelerated down the slope. I tried to put in an ice axe arrest but with my hands in huge down mitts I couldn't hold onto it. With the axe ripped out of my hands I was sliding out of control with no way of stopping myself. I found myself sweeping downhill on my back, headfirst. I looked down the slope only to see a band of black rock racing to meet my head. Upon impact I felt no pain but I was aware that it was potentially a very serious injury. Then I began tumbling, convinced I was going all the way to the bottom of the 1500 meter Lhotse face. I managed to compose myself and grabbed my left wrist with the ice axe attached to it and slid my hand along the leash until it got to the shaft. My right down mitt had come off so I was able to get hold of the shaft more easily. I knew I needed to put in an ice axe arrest quickly. Not too far below was the yellow band, a 10 meter high rock step, and I knew if I went over that it would be 'game over'. Somehow I managed to put my ice axe into the snow and stopped myself. The procedure had become second nature thanks entirely to the rigorous training I had received from my schoolteacher, John Young. 

I came to a stop but it took a few seconds to compose myself before I opened my eyes. At first I was uncertain where I was, but eventually it dawned on me I'd fallen the farther side of a group of rocks visible from Camp 4. It was then that I noticed the large, expanding pool of blood in the snow. It was about two feet in diameter and I became concerned about the volume of blood I had lost. It quickly transpired that it was coming from a cut above my left eye. I used my neck gaiter to put pressure on the wound and the bleeding quickly stopped. I checked myself over and found no broken bones, but a crampon missing. The slope I had fallen onto was not as stable as the snow in the couloir and an avalanche was a real possibility. I decided to wait for Darek who came down to check me over. He then continued down to Camp 4 to get help. He left me his oxygen and I curled up in a ball to try to stay as warm as possible. Very quickly my feet went numb, in socks wet from the day's exertions, they got very cold. I sat there for about an hour and a half convinced that I was going to die. I was expecting to fall unconscious at any moment from either blood loss or shock; and I though that even if I remained alert then internal injuries or the exposure would kill me. It was a nerve-wracking wait with a thousand thoughts flying round my head. In particular I recall thinking how much I desperately wanted to survive, to see again my family and friends, not die alone and cold up there. One of the hardest moments was when I looked up to the route and saw Anna and Passang. I shouted for help but they couldn't hear me and carried on down to Camp 4. 

The sun was starting to set and I decided that to wait any longer would put me in great danger. So I shouldered my pack and started inching my way down the slope. After only a few feet I saw the shape of someone approaching. Simone Moro quickly came up to me. When he arrived he radioed to the lower Camps to tell them that he'd reached me and that I was OK, I'll never forget the response, a huge cheer went up. It was the most amazing sensation that while I was feeling so alone on my own, there were so many people doing whatever they could to rescue me. Simone helped me to walk, though lacking a crampon, by kicking steps and attaching me to his ice axe that he drove into the snow every time I stepped up into his footprints. By the time we got back to Camp 4 it was dark and both of us were very cold. Simone placed me in his tent and together with his partner Denis Urubko they set about warming me up. They put me in a sleeping bag and before I knew it I had drifted off to sleep. I had a restless night, waking up feeling short of breath and vomiting. 

The next morning Simone managed to find me some oxygen, but as I was still dehydrated from the previous day it dried my throat and was very painful. Eventually, later that day, some Sherpas helped me down to Camp 3 while Simone and Denis remained at Camp 4 to try for the summit the following day. At Camp 3 we were met by Jason Edwards a commercial guide who was waiting for us. He immediately gave me oxygen, sweets and water. He and his team were exceptionally generous and I would like to thank them for everything they did for me. Arriving at Camp 2 later that evening, I was again exhausted. Very kindly Jason's team fed me, gave me oxygen and generally made sure I was comfortable. The following day I returned to Base Camp with Gary Pfisterer.  Instead of the usual four to five hours we took nearer nine. It was agony, for I had run out of steam completely and had no energy left at all. By the time we reached Base Camp I was shattered, and hardly able to put one foot in front of the other.

On the way down we met Simone who had unfortunately failed to get to the summit because of the energy he had used rescuing me. I felt and still feel very guilty, but Simone who is a very humble man shrugged his shoulders and said, "It is no problem. In the future I can still climb and you can still climb and that's more important than any summit." His sentiment is a lesson to us all, I believe it’s a perfect example of the true climbing spirit. I will never be able to thank him enough for what he did for me, he is an amazing man and a real hero. I hope that one day, if ever needed, I can do the same for someone else.

As for me I was flown out of Base Camp to Kathmandu and after medical checks there I was evacuated to Bangkok in an air ambulance because of a suspected torn windpipe. After 12 days in Bangkok I was cleared to fly to a hospital in Britain, and five days later I was finally allowed to go home. I had to return to hospital to have three toes amputated due to frostbite.

Looking back I know I have been incredibly lucky. I have got off extraordinarily lightly. My thoughts go out to those who haven't been so fortunate. Many people may suggest that I was too young and inexperienced to be climbing Lhotse. I have always believed that there can be something gained from climbing in such areas as the Alps or Scotland to build a comprehensive skill base, but deny that I was too inexperienced to attempt Lhotse. I admit that whilst the fall wasn't caused by a climbing error, I did perhaps make some errors of judgment - by staying the extra night at camp 4, and by persisting in those snow conditions. But I can now learn from them as part of my ever-expanding experience. No one is perfect and makes all the right decisions especially at 8,000m. It has certainly made me far more aware of how easily something like this can happen and of the consequences. I still have strong aspirations to climb in the Himalayas (especially K2) but I need to reflect on what happened and decide if the risks are still acceptable.

I would like to thank Simone Moro for coming alone, at great personal risk to help me.

I would also like to thank the following:-

            Gary Pfisterer   

            Mike Richardson

            Darek Zaluski

            Denis Urubko 

            Jason Edwards

            Indian Army Expedition Doctor

            John Young Beechen Cliff School, Bath

            Dr Helena  SEWEC Clinic Kathmandu

 And everyone else who helped me - far too numerous to mention - for all their assistance and support.", Tom Moores

[Note, this is Tom Moores' Story in his words.]

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